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To what extent was Napoleon’s success in Europe to 1807 the consequences of his own military ability?
Napoleon’s success in Europe to 1807 could not have been the consequences of a single factor, his own military ability, but rather a combination of linking, interdependent factors, some of which playing a greater role than others, but all helping Napoleon along the road to success. It is undeniable that if fate had given Napoleon an entirely different set of circumstances (if he had not been able to rise through the ranks as easily, if France had not the massive population it did e.t.c) then, no matter how intelligent or able he was, he would not have enjoyed the kind of success he did.
Correlli Barnett, in his book Bonaparte, is very critical of Napoleon and his tactics, claiming that it was largely the incompetence and weaknesses of his enemies that enabled him to achieve success. For example, on the Battle of Ulm (October 1805), Barnett talks about what might have happened if Austria had a “general more active than Mack”, who broke out with a single Austrian corps right across Bonaparte’s communications. The Austrian army had an impressive artillery which could have posed a threat to Napoleon if combined with Russia, but there was no universal language, and with it’s varied ethnic and racial populations this was a huge problem – it slowed communication and often left many in a state of confusion.
This also meant that there was no real national identity allowing the kind of patriotism that the French could use to fight with. The Russian army also had huge problems, one of the main ones being the fact that the soldiers did not want to be fighting a war at all. Surrounding the conscript army was a negative, fatalistic view of army life – a darkly amusing fact is that soldiers could often go to their own funeral before they were conscripted away to battle. Apart from the fact that they were treated like criminals, Russian soldiers were also poorly trained, severely lacking in tactical awareness and education. Prussia on the other hand, with its fine tradition, had a very strong army.
However, the Prussian skirmishes were poor and the army missed a sense of individuality (instinct or initiative) and instead acted after strategic planning alone. Furthermore, the Prussian artillery could not come close to the French standards, being completely out gunned on some occasions, even when the French had far less numbers. The British army, before 1807, was not much of a force to be reckoned with – it was fairly tiny and was not as strong or quick as the French army. Even though the weaknesses of Napoleon’s enemies were rather considerable before 1807, he would not have been able to profit from these weaknesses if it were not for his military genius and the strength of his army.
When he came to power, Napoleon inherited a huge and incredibly strong army to do with whatever he pleased. The French army fought for a cause. They were not as mercenaries, not as men impressed against their will, but as citizens honorably defending their revolution against its threatened destruction by outside forces. People were full of this revolutionary ardour and actively sought battle. This was a wholly new perspective of war and the causes it was fought for. Generally, Napoleon’s enemies fought Wars of maneuvers and not, unlike Napoleon’s army, with the intention of completely annihilating the enemy. They relied on aggressive shock tactics and the momentum of the bayonet charge to bring them success. The French fought with more purpose and feeling than any other nation because they had a war with a strong purpose – a terrorist war.
Also, Napoleon’s army was blessed with a variety of talented commanders and officers. The great military theorist, the prussian, Von Clausewitz wrote ‘on war’ in 1832. In this he put forward his view that 1793 marked a turning point in the organization of armies and the conduct of war. He considered that both were changed forever by the creation of the year of the ‘French nation in arms’ (the levee en masse) that transformed limited war into total war. This refers to when the previous man in change of the army, Carnot, introduced a forced conscription to all able civilians. As well as conscription,1793 brought with it the first amalgame – the merging of remnants of the old army with the new.
The introduction of veteran soldiers into the new army did much to bring order into its early chaotic organization without destroying its verve, and formed the fighting force which Napoleon used as the basis of his grande armee. The amalgame also brought a great deal of military experience to his army Furthermore, the sheer size of Napoleons inherited army was the largest ever seen in Europe, a million men, and provided him with the ammunition, if you like, to launch devastating attacks on his enemies. He therefore inherited significant developments which had been introduced by the Republic, and which he subsequently built upon. The strength of his army, however, would not have been anywhere near as impressive if he had not the domestic foundations for success or strength of mind to know what to do with it.
France had a huge population of around 28 million (the largest population in any single state in Europe) and so simply had a greater number of men to choose from. This also enabled Carnot to introduce the levee en masse which enlisted a massive 80,000 men each year into the army, fueling France’s battles, which could be fought more often, more continuously and on more fronts than any other country. Although the large majority were from poor peasant families, universal conscription brought me from all classes together and created a new sense of unity in France. Also, France had a whole society organized for war. Napoleon had a military dictatorship so could use all the resources of the state and was not held accountable for his failures (e.g leaving armies in Egypt and Russia and losing 50,000 men a year as opposed to Wellington’s 6,000).
This greater amount of authority meant that Napoleon could make all of his appointments personally, and not by advisors. e also created a meritocracy within the army, a kind of ‘privileged military caste’. This said that if you do well in the French army, you get rewards or offices of state (giving officers incentives to succeed). Furthermore, Napoleon controlled all press and channels of communication so could have a careful watch over his country and could make sure that all efforts were in favour of driving on the savage French war machine. Although the sheer size of the army enabled Napoleon to create his grande armee and the resources of France could be used to help the war effort, Napoleon’s ability and qualities as a general were absolutely vital in securing his success to 1807.
Napoleon was widely known as being able to inspire loyalty. He gave the appearance of knowing everybody in his army and always knowing what was going on. He played on the ideas of military glory, of patriotism and comradeship, while giving at the same time the impression that he had a deep paternal concern for his men. For example, he would single people out and congratulate them by name, very personally. He used theatrical and emotive language in his bulletins and orders of the day to forge bonds between him and his soldiers. For example, in a Bulletin in 1805 he wrote that “The Emperor is among you”. Despite his generally unprepossessing appearance, when he wished to charm he could quickly win over anyone he met, however initially hostile he might be. This sort of confidence was also shown on the battlefield where Wellington observed that the effect of his presence was worth an additional force of 40,000 men to the French army.
He was very charismatic and could play on the soldiers greed by promising loot, a material reward for their toils. He could also rally himself with them, “Whatever the obstacles we meet, we shall overcome them”. All these factors earned Napoleon the adoration of his soldiers. Whatever point of view one takes, it is a fact that Napoleon possessed a very gifted military mind. Napoleon’s prime tactic was to avoid a slugging match and focusing his strengths on the enemies weaknesses. He picked weakest spots and then blasted huge chunks out of them with his artillery. He had flexibility with his corps (taken from the ideas of Guibert), and would use them to come from unexpected directions and attack weak points. He was known for his pragmatism and opportunism, but there is a great debate over whether Napoleon was a great strategic planner or whether he was a scrambler, good at scrambling and improvising his way to victory.
Gunther Rothenburg praises his qualities, but believed he was a ‘Planner’ instead of a scrambler, giving the example of his maneuver on Ulm which he describes as ‘well co-ordinated and swift’. However, historians such as Owen Connolly are critical of the traditional interpretation of Napoleon and says that he was a great improviser with no tactical doctrine who would simply profit from his enemy’s mistakes. Even though both of these historians, and many like them, disagree on this aspect of him, they both say that Napoleon was probably the greatest commander of all time. This shows that, even though he may have been gifted with extraordinary circumstances, Napoleon’s towering genius was the major driving force in his success and it is obvious that no ordinary commander could have gone as far as he did.
After looking at various factors in Napoleon’s success in Europe to 1807, it is evident that the scale of Napoleons success was dependent on a number of things; population size, Carnot’s policy of conscription, French resources and the relative weakness of his enemies. Napoleon’s journey to success was paved by a number of these absolutely crucial factors, without which no success would have been possible.
Even though his military ability was one of these vital paving stones, one cannot really argue that it was more or less important than other crucial factors because they were all instrumental in allowing the extent of extent of Napoleon’s success to be realized. However, I am positive that if Napoleon did have a less fortunate army given to him when he came to power, his enemies stronger, and the potential opportunity for success had not been so great, he would still have made the best out of what he had and would have made relative success, showing his huge military capabilities.